Joe Cocker (1969)
I’m not usually so belated in my “in memoriam” posts, but since Joe Cocker so inconsiderately chose to die right before the busy holidays (last Dec. 22), I have somehow managed not to get around to this one until now. So let’s make this one the first Reselect “Cover Friday” in a very long time while we’re at it!
I think I spent a good deal of my childhood thinking that Joe Cocker had a physical affliction of some sort, with his spastic performance style, although I eventually figured it must not truly be such when I saw him singing on Saturday Night Live with John Belushi doing his famous — just barely exaggerated — impersonation of Cocker, who certainly had a sense of humor about it. I think it’s just that Cocker had so much pent up energy when he performed, and so little apparent ability to move in rhythm with his band, that whatever he couldn’t get out with the singing he basically tried to force out through his chest. He was also heavily, uh, “medicated” throughout much of the ’70s, so that certainly can’t be counted out as a contributing factor.
Cocker was one of the great rock interpreters, writing very few songs of his own. Certainly, all his biggest hits were covers. Of all of them, “Feelin’ Alright,” his 1969 cover of a song originally written and released by Traffic on their fantastic 1968 debut album, is my favorite, and probably his best known recording (alongside his cover of the Beatles’ “With a Little Help from My Friends”). While Traffic’s original (which, although it’s a very close call, is probably the version I like best) is more reflective, with Dave Mason’s singing clearly indicating how miserable the song’s narrator really is — emphasizing the “not feeling so good myself” line — Cocker made his version super funky and much more upbeat, placing his emphasis on the “feelin’ alright” part. Mason isn’t sure when he’ll feel better; Cocker knows he’s already on the way back up.
His good nature and seeming lack of pretense made Cocker one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most likable figures, and it was good to see him enjoying the resurgent success he experienced later in his career. Even if he was no longer a vital figure on the music scene in recent years, he served as a notable touchstone for many singers of the modern rock era — Eddie Vedder for one certainly owes Cocker a stylistic debt, but there are many others. And Woodstock’s legend wouldn’t have been the same without Cocker’s remarkable performance there. Long live vocal rocker Joe Cocker!